On Feb. 10, 18 students from Pittsfield High School entered a courtroom at the Berkshire County District Courthouse in Pittsfield to defend a fellow teenager for a prank gone wrong. Half took their seats in the gallery to watch the proceedings while witnesses were sequestered in another section of the courtroom. The remaining students took their places at the defense table.
The proceedings didn't last long -- only 90 minutes. The verdict was given by the judge just moments after the closing statements were heard. But in the end, the Pittsfield High School students came out on top.
"They did great," PHS social studies teacher Maggie Esko said. "They knew their case well. They knew their argument. The witnesses were well-prepared, and our attorneys, they had a theme for their argument and stuck to it."
The 18 students were members of the PHS mock trial team. They literally had their day in court as the counsel and witnesses for the defense -- and won. The trial was the team's first victory in the 2010-11 Massachusetts Bar Association's High School Mock Trial Program; the victory was over Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.
"It's a friendly competition, even though it can get very competitive during the trial itself," Esko said.
The Mock Trial Program, in its 26th year, requires high school students throughout the state to study a fictional court case from a variety of angles -- defense, prosecution and witness -- and then argue that case from a particular side in a court of law, with well-prepared witnesses and a judge (a volunteer lawyer from the MBA). There are local teams not only at PHS and Wahconah, but also at Lenox and Lee high schools.
The PHS mock trial program, which had seen success in earlier years but had been dropped at the school, only returned to PHS four years ago when Esko entered the building as a first-year teacher.
"It fell on my desk and I thought it was interesting, so I signed up," Esko said.
Drawn toward law and government since college, the statewide program seemed like a great fit for Esko -- and what she wanted for her students.
"It's great for anyone who's trying to get into college to have something like this on their transcript," Esko said. "It's a way to compete academically, and it is also a great way for me to connect with the students."
‘Think on your feet'
According to its website
(mocktrial.massbar.org), the program also has a number of other goals: to further students' understanding of the law, court procedures, civil liberties and the legal system; to increase student proficiency in basic life skills, such as listening, speaking, reading and reasoning; to develop student advocacy skills regardless of which side of the case is being represented and irrespective of the party with which one most identifies; to promote better communication and cooperation between students, the schools and the legal profession; and to heighten student consciousness of law-related professions and the academic studies that lead to those professions.
Senior Connor Kelley, a fourth-year team member, hopes the program will help him reach his future career goals.
"I've always wanted to be a lawyer," Kelley said. "Being in mock trial is a great way to gain that experience."
Hannah Smith, who has law in her blood (her mother is a lawyer), has another reason for joining the mock trial team.
"I don't think I want to be a lawyer. I just love debating," said Smith, a second-year team member. "Mock trial helps you with a lot of things like that. We don't get a lot of chances at our age to speak in front of people we don't know, and now it doesn't intimidate me at all."
Smith also enjoys the spontaneous nature of defending or prosecuting a particular court case.
"A lot of it you can prepare in advance, but when you get up there, the witnesses don't always give you what you want, and you need to be able to think on your feet," she said.
On its way
With one win under its belt while arguing for the defense and upcoming competitions against Longmeadow and Westfield, where the team will argue for the defense and prosecution, respectively, the Pittsfield mock trial team is one step closer to district playoffs in March and possibly the state and national championships in April and May.
"It's extremely competitive," Esko said. "I'd love for my kids to do that. That'd be the ultimate goal."
But state and national competition aside, Esko has broader and more permanent goals for the program: She would like the students to take the respect and experience of the courtroom with them into the world.
"When a judge walks in, they stand and say things like, ‘If it pleases the court,' ‘Yes, your honor,' ‘May I continue, your honor?' I love to hear them in that environment, and I hope it carries out into a job interview, or college interview, in life," Esko said.
Esko also hopes her students take their knowledge of public speaking and the entire judicial process with them as well.
"They're just one of the nicest groups of kids I've ever met. They're hardworking. They've matured a lot," Esko said. "They really do understand the trial process."
For more information on the Massachusetts Bar Association's High School Mock Trial Program, visit mocktrial.massbar.org.